The Evolution and Rise
of the Key Opinion Leader

You spent years tackling medical school, residency, maybe a fellowship or two. All of this work has helped you arrive at a specific destination such as caring for patients, doing meaningful research, etc. What if you could contribute even more to your specialty, peers, and/or patients? Becoming an influencer—what is often referred to as a key opinion leader (KOL)—could help you achieve greater impact.

KOLs are considered thought leaders in their field, are regularly sought out by their peers for opinions and advice, and are considered credible and trusted. They’re also knowledgeable about industry news, clinical trials, and other developments relevant to their specialties, and are open to sharing their opinions. They’re often early adopters of new treatments or procedures and help establish best practice protocols for patient care. If you think about who in your field is viewed this way, a few names probably readily come to mind. So how, specifically, do you become a KOL? It’s part science and part art to build your reputation as a KOL, but here are some tips to help show you how it’s done.

The foundation of any KOL is demonstrating excellent patient care. All of the additional activities you take on will then complement an already strong reputation in your field. There are several components that, collectively, make someone more influential in medicine. Key components may include:

Authorship of studies and posters. If you’re a clinician (and not typically doing research), working on studies and posters is something you would tackle in addition to seeing your patients. Having your name as a lead author is a bonus. The process for getting involved in studies and posters will vary based on the institution.

Authorship of books and articles. Similar to studies and posters, authoring books or articles demonstrates that you’re a source of knowledge.

Conference presentations. Sometimes requests to present at conferences stem from a study, poster, or article you have published. Certain conferences allow you to pitch presentation ideas. This is a good way to get in front of your peers and share something innovative or thought-provoking.

Society board or committee memberships. As you know, there are specific societies for each specialty. You may be a member of several of them. Serving in a leadership role—on a board or guidelines committee—positions you as someone who can have greater influence over the direction of your field.

Patents. Creating a new technology, device, or method automatically highlights an innovative mindset. Getting a patent is, of course, not an easy feat. But physicians are some of the best people to create products or services as they are often the end-user of their creation.

Involvement in founding companies/developing products. Similar to patents, serving in a business role such as a chief medical officer (CMO) or co-founder demonstrates not only innovation but also a level of business acumen.

KOLs and Industry: Potential Partnerships & Guardrails

The pharmaceutical and medical device industries are continually looking for KOLs to participate in advisory committees, professional education and training, sales programming, and market research. Companies often tier their KOLs based on local, regional, or national level of influence. The level of influence designated is often based on feedback from the sales team coupled with how active the physician is in the activities outlined above.

Working with industry can be extremely rewarding. It can allow you to have a direct impact on patient care in several ways. Having your clinic or institution serve as a clinical trial site is one way to collaborate with industry. Another way is serving on an advisory board that might be asking for feedback on how well a product works. It could also be done by providing early input on product development needs. Finally, collaboration with industry could be done through teaching your peers about a product you believe in and use. This teaching often happens during dinner programming or workshops organized by the company.

A collaboration with a pharmaceutical or medical device company can be mutually beneficial.. These companies often provide training, talks, platforms, audiences and sometimes authorship opportunities, which is exactly the prominence they need to shape opinions and speak in an authoritative language.
There are some guardrails to keep in mind when considering working with industry. These include not accepting gifts, limiting income from industry activities to $40,000 per year, and reporting all activity to CMS. More information on helpful guidelines can be found here.

The Rise of the Digital Opinion Leader

While traditionally KOLs have relied on podium presentations and publications as influence platforms, there is now evidence of the rise of the Digital Opinion Leader (DOL), a new breed of thought leader that has mastered the art of scientific communication in a digital world. As digital continues to expand its reach and share of the conversation of medical information, DOLs can gain a different type of reach and influence.

Social media is an important piece of the digital presence puzzle. LinkedIn, Doximity, Facebook, and Twitter are a few channels that can be extremely powerful to increase your thought leadership. They can help build your visibility, credibility and relevance; develop relationships with influential people in the healthcare industry; and be a source for the latest news and trends.



Conduct a digital audit.

Look at where your personal data lies and determine how you want others to find and connect with you.

Tweet at conferences and events.

Generate conversations about industry news or celebrate a peer’s work. Spark dialogue with your audience about new ideas.

Follow and engage with industry professionals.

When you follow the right individuals on social media, you have access to information to propel your thought leadership. Focus on only following those who offer you value.

Reuse and repurpose thought leadership content.

If you recently spoke at a virtual conference, take key messages from your presentation and share them in a tweet.

Connect with KOLs and other thought leaders.

Start small by following individuals and organizations you know. Pay close attention to which accounts they tend

to retweet, and if those accounts resonate with you then follow them. Maintain existing relationships and foster new ones with thoughtful comments.

Curate and share third-party content.

A great example of third-party content you should share is a press release showcasing your work. Simply retweet or retweet with a comment!

As a DOL, you are among a new breed of healthcare experts who influence industry on public social media. Whether you’re a digital native or not, junior and senior HCPs alike are becoming more active online and engaging digitally. This is your opportunity to stand out and make a bigger impact.